Bhang, India’s holy marijuana


India has to be one of very few countries in the world where one can legally stand on the street and have a cannabis drink without being arrested. The reality is that, cannabis so ingrained in the culture of India that the authorities are unable to criminalise it fully. Although selling of cannabis is prohibited in India, it’s readily available and no attempts are made to arrest the sellers. In fact, cannabis plants are native to India and are often a nuisance in many Indian gardens and fields across the country.

Bhang (cannabis, marijuana) is made from the buds and leaves of female cannabis plant. Through production and selling of cannabis is illegal in the country, bhang remains legal at some places due to cultural and religious reasons. In my home town of Patna, you’ll fine women selling bhang goli (bhang balls) on the streets at the famous Patna Market.

Hindu holy men have used marijuana for centuries and they believe that it’s the best way to worship and understand Lord Shiva, one of the powerful gods of the Hindu trinity. In addition, according to the Vedas, the cannabis plant was considered as one of the many sacred plants.

Bhang Shop
Bhang Shop. Source: Kris_B’s photostream

History of Bhang in India

Bhang is probably the oldest intoxicant in the world still in use. It has a long history in the Indian subcontinent, where Hindus associate it with their most powerful deity: the lord Shiva. Legend has it that Shiva brought bhang from the Himalayas for the pleasure of the mankind. According to another legend, bhang was discovered when the gods and demons together stirred the oceans with a big mountain in hopes of getting the nectre of life.

A famous Greek historian Herodotus who lived in the 4th century B.C. mentions the use of bhang among Indians. Some old Arabic texts refer to medicinal uses of bhang. The British were amazed to find such widespread use of bhang when they came to India during the 19th century. They were at a loss as to how to deal with it. A British report authored by J. M. Campbell in 1893-94 suggested: “To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so holy and gracious a herb as the hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance and to the large bands of worshiped ascetics deep-seated anger.” So bhang was not outlawed during the British rule in India.

Bhang Lassi at the holy city of Varanasi

Bhang Lassi

What exactly is Bhang Lassi? The exact translation would be something like “cannabis milkshake”. It would consist of nuts and spices such like almonds, pistachios, poppy seeds, pepper, ginger and sugar or honey mixed with cannabis powder prepared from cannabis plant and boiled with milk. It is then drunk either at room temperature or cold.

As it happens, bhang is the most popular intoxicant in India especially at times of festivity such as Holi and Shivaratri festivals. It’s usually consumed as milk or yogurt based beverage, famously known as “Bhang ki Thandai” or “Bhang Lassi”. You’ll find most of the bhang lassi shops in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.

Some even like to smoke mainly in northern parts of the country. You’ll mainly find many sadhus (wandering holy men) smoking hashish called the “chillum”. Lord Shiva often is pictured lost in his own world holding a bowl of intoxicant. The bowl in fact is supposed to be the poison that Shiva drank to free the world of sins something to what Jesus did when he died on the cross for humanity. But some say that Shiva is consuming some form of drug particularly cannabis. Whatever the case maybe, cannabis or ganja is often associated with worship of the Shiva both in India and Nepal.

Bhang sold on the streets
Bhang sold on the streets

Consumption of Bhang

Unlike alcohol and other drugs, there is little or no social stigma attached to bhang. As a result, it’s consumed throughout the year. Consumption increases markedly near the popular festival of Holi. According to some estimates, sales go up more than four times the average around Holi.

Bhang is also sold at restaurants catering to foreign tourists. There are many government approved outlets who sell bhang lassi. It’s also used as an ingredient in bhajis, biscuits and several other Indian drinks and dishes.

Selling and buying of Bhang

Like in most countries, trade in cannabis is prohibited by the law. However, due to a cultural and religious association with the preparation, a limited use is permitted. Bhang is chiefly sold at special vendors based in the religious cities or ghats in Northern India. The selling is monitored by the government to stop an abuse of the drug since bhang can be used to prepare more potent intoxicants. Bhang can be bought from special vendors. However, it’s advisable to check with your local/regional/national government as buying cannabis is banned in most countries.

An American buying bhang cookies and chocolates

My personal experience of bhang

Have I tried bhang? Yes I have, a few times. Its tradition! I haven’t smoked it but have tried the bhang lassi and bhang goli (balls) on many occasions especially on the Indian festival of Holi and to be honest I do like it. Strangely, it makes me laugh a lot continuously for no reason what so ever not to mention the feeling of flying. From personal experience; bhang takes a long time to get to the head and takes even longer to sober.

Advice

Unless you exactly know what you are doing, my best advice is to stay away from it. But if you really want to try it out, then I urge you go to government approved shops and refrain from trying bhang from the street vendors. Always try the lighter versions of the bhang lassi first and not the “super duper sexy” strength as mentioned in the second video unless if you want to lie in your hotel bed and hallucinate for the next 2 days. If you go for the bhang biscuits, try a tiny bit first and wait for the results. You can increase the dose if you’re comfortable. Best advice is not to try bhang at all.

What are your thoughts on bhang lassi? Would you make a trip to India just for the bhang?

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